WHITE PEOPLE ARE LOOKING AT YOU! – Get Out, Wanda Sykes, Interracial Dating and the Many Monsters of White
There were moments where only people of color laughed and where the white people in front of us looked so uncomfortable I could see their shoulders sag and twist. I do not want to spoil the film as it is a singular experience and it is frankly a triumph for the horror genre but I will give a basic outline:
Our protagonist is a dark skinned black man with strong features and a good laugh. His name is Chris. He is an orphan, he had a mother but she was killed when he was young. He has a dog that is blonde and very cute, the dog appears to be hypoallergenic. He has a best friend who works for the TSA, his best friend is amazing and we are immediately endeared to him as an audience because our protagonist’s best friend always tells it like it is. Our protagonist is a photographer and appears to live off of his photographs which are black and white and large and appear to have a documentary angle. His photographs are of other black people. His photographs are neither good nor bad and for the purposes of the film it is less about the images themselves and far more about the fact that he takes them and that they are of other black people and their lives.
On their way to visit our protagonist’s girlfriend’s parents the couple hit a deer who quite frankly appears to have been dropped from the sky by god. A warning. Obviously. Upon arriving to his girlfriend’s parents house, our protagonist is greeted as “my man” and asked how long this “thang” has been going on. The girlfriend’s parents are “liberal”, they appear nice enough, something is off but we know that already because we saw the trailer. The parents have two black people that work for them: Walter who is the “groundskeeper” and Georgina who appears to work in the house serving and cooking.These black people are strange, something is up with them, we knew that too. So many twists and turns present themselves in the trailer alone that I won’t bother to repeat all of them here. Let us just say that this film’s genius lies in how many different layers of the insidious experience of American blackness it is able to point to, scratch at, pull out and name.
In one particularly interesting series of scenes, our protagonist and his girlfriend are surprised to learn that the girlfriend’s parents have scheduled an annual get together with family friends. The family friends are all white save for one Asian guy and a very young black man who appears to be the partner of a much older white woman. At this gathering plenty of really wild things are said and happen to our protagonist and it is at this point in the movie that our protagonist begins to become very suspicious of his girlfriend’s family. One man that our protagonist meets is a blind art dealer. This blind dealer to our protagonist’s surprise is familiar with his photographs. The blind dealer’s caretaker has explained the photographs to the blind dealer in great detail. The blind dealer compliments our protagonist heavily on his eye, his ability to see such pain, to photograph it so well, to frame it so perfectly. The blind art dealer mentions that he wishes that he could see the way that our protagonist can. Damn. That is a fascinating thing isn’t it? It does feel sometimes that white people want to see what we see; to live the black experience. “Oh the pain, the suffering, how entertaining to be black and see as the black sees to feel as the black feels.”
Wanda Sykes has an amazing comedy special called, ‘Ima Be Me’. In it she has a particularly good bit about white people and their watching. The bit basically consists of Sykes explaining how nice it is that Obama is president as he was when she made the HBO comedy special. Sykes explains that before Obama her entire life she had to do certain things to remain a dignified black person. She shares an anecdote about how her and her brother would try and dance in the car to music and their mother would say, “Either you ride or you dance.” She meant, stop dancing. Sykes mother went on to say, “White people are looking at you.” Sykes looks around at the fictional whites on stage: “damn, they are!”
Growing up in San Francisco my mother explained to me that when you see another black person you must smile and should generally say hello. There is no need to smile at white people unless they smile at you. She continued that generally white people smile at you because they are staring at you, it isn’t that great that they are staring at you but they’re going to and if they smile generally it is just because you caught them looking. I wondered though, what are they looking at me for? What are they expecting me to do? Who are they expecting me to be?
In a studio visit over the summer, one of my professors explained to me that after a black person was lynched often his or her genitals would be cut off of their body and sold to the onlookers as aphrodisiacs for good fortune and fertility. If only one could be as fertile as the blacks. If only I could see as the blacks see.
In 2011 when I first arrived in Berlin to study I was struck by just how many white people were in fact looking at me. I had been assured by the emails from my institution that Berlin was an accepting city but damn all these white people were really looking at me. They looked like they were going to eat me. Or as if they wanted to become me, that by looking long enough they might hop into my skin. They examined every inch of me when they look at me, my hands, my hair, my eyes, they look at my crotch to see if I am a man and to see how large my penis is. One day a Korean professor of mine pulled me aside and explained to me that in Germany it is very normal to stare and that all these white people were just staring because they were curious and some of the older ones had never really spent much time around black people so don’t sweat it. My professor added that it is also completely customary that when someone is staring at you to stare right back.
At 9 one of my older cousins pulled me aside and said, “Hey stop saying hello to every black person you see.” I argued obviously explaining what my mother had told me. My cousin said: “don’t say anything just look them in the eye and give them a nod. You just want to acknowledge them, only fairies say hello.” Mama didn’t raise no fairy.
In Get Out our protagonist is quite excited to see the other black man at the gathering. He clasps him on the shoulder and quickly code switches, “it is nice to see another brother here” and to his shock the other black man does not code switch in return. The other black man does not return the pound our protagonist offers, instead he grasps our protagonist’s fist as if to try to shake it. It seems this man is black only in color and not in socialization. Later, our protagonist (with the help of his endearing best friend) realizes the other black man at the gathering is actually a missing black man from his neighborhood. He tries to take a picture of the missing black man and forgets (as we are all apt to do) to turn the flash off on his phone camera. The flash sends the missing black man into a frenzy, his nose is bleeding. The missing black man grabs our protagonist on the shoulder, he sounds black now, he screams “GET OUT!”
In Berlin all the black people I see are generally African. They have a completely different understanding of their blackness and don’t feel it necessary to give a nod. This is very jarring at first. Their mute faces as I stare at them worry me. Are they ok? Am I ok? Did all these white people eat their souls? Is this all in my head?
The woman I am in love with, let’s call her Q, is white passing and I have to be frank that I have had crises (embarrassing and stupid and frustrating ones that for the purposes of this essay shall remain auxilliary) about my deep love for her. What does it mean for me to be so wound up in my desire for her? Well of course she is passing and for me to have also at one point enacted the violence of assuming her white on to her is problematic in and of itself. Additionally, part of that passing has to do too with the fact that whiteness is insidious and buying into these value systems of power is exactly the issue in the first place. In Berlin where she lives, when we walk down the street and pass an interracial couple if such a couple happens to involve a black man this man will look for my eye because 1) we share a status as one part of an interracial couple and 2) because it is nice to see a fellow black person navigating an interracial relationship. I joke with Q that in Berlin when black men who are also in an interracial couple meet my eyes and we walk by one another with our respective lovers that we are having a silent conversation that goes: hey man you good, ya i’m good, how u doing, everything ok, naw it’s not so ok, idk she’s white but I love her, listen it is just the system man, don’t let it get you down man, stay black, one love. This is funny and not funny but we laugh and grimace.
I became so interested in the odd sensation of what Q and I look like to others that I often find myself making work about her hands on my body. One such piece, White Man’s Burden plays around with her assumed whiteness, the history of colonialism and of course Vaseline. As usual I wasn’t sure what I was doing, I just became interested in all of these disparate pieces and the conversation that they could have with one another. In another piece, “A Din (A Hand)”, still in progress (but easy enough to share) and still with Q’s hands, I play around with ideas of tenderness. It’s a simple piece, she has her hands on the back of my head, she moves her hands around my head, sometimes gripping, sometimes holding. I’ve been projecting this piece onto a wall of leaves, her hands appear and reappear. I am not sure how exactly this all relates to Get Out and to Wanda and to surveillance and to white people, but it does.
As Hannah Black explains in her interview on AQNB from 2014, “The body is always a vector of domination; having a body is a signal of your vulnerability to the world.” And oh how vulnerable we are, these black American bodies. The laborer, the problem, the entertainer, the enfranchised, the emboldened, the disenfranchised, the mirror for the US to see itself, the exported, the imported, the bodies, the bodies, the bodies.
My best friend from college has a white partner, let’s call my friend A. A is chinese and her girlfriend, let’s call her, M, is white from the south. A and I are catching up and I look at the refrigerator and it is filled with white people, well marriage announcements and all the couples in the announcements are white. All these couples are holding hands walking through an idyllic scene or atop a mountain or some other perfect location to begin their journey together. A explains that her and M will have to attend a lot of weddings this year. These weddings will be expensive to get to. There will be a lot of white people. A points out another wedding invitation on the counter, this one will be at the bride’s family’s plantation. As a joke, and not a joke, I say, I hope you’re not gonna be that asian guy in Get Out. It is funny, we laugh, but it is also not funny because A has never been complacent in the racist reality of the yuppie american narrative, that is the last thing that A wants, or that M wants, or that I want but A will have to go to this wedding on a plantation in the summer because A is obligated to go and A does not want M to have to go alone. M is a new lesbian after all and those that have problems with lesbians generally have an easier time if they see that the lesbian M has chosen is a respectable human being and not some monster that eats pussy and dreams. A is also curious about this wedding at a plantation. How deep does this rabbit hole of whiteness really go? What are they doing out there in the woods on the land they stole from the native americans whom they murdered? What could they be up to on that land they had tilled by black bodies from ships that is now maintained by other brown bodies? We wonder in silence in for a minute.
I ask if the bride has any black friends, A conjectures no, but the bride is not racist necessarily, but the bride’s family does have this plantation that they have kind of always had. Later, giving A a hard time, at a taco place over a pitcher of margaritas, I tell A that to really troll the wedding she should ask to see the slave quarters. I tell her they won’t be so far from the main house, they’ll look like sheds, or they’ll be shadows of sheds. A grimaces and laughs and says I think, after seeing the sheds or shadows of sheds, I would have to leave. I also laugh and grimace. Me too, I say as we both know that one day it might be possible that I too might be so curious and feel so obligated that I would attend a wedding on a plantation because race and class and curiosity are funny in that way and not funny in that other way. When someone holds up a mirror, you generally have to look at it. When you don’t like what you see in the mirror, your shoulders twist, you might grimace.
We continue drinking. The margaritas are strong. Oh race! Oh history! Oh slavery! Oh the United States! Oh god! Cue the deer, it’s a sign, let’s just go back to the city.